Sunday, 25 February 2018

Pyrrhic Christmas - Flash Fiction

I was so looking forward to tomorrow’s first Christmas with my reconfigured family. To lapping up the sight of my new husband’s forearms ripple as he sliced the turkey. My son’s face lighting up brighter the the Christmas tree illuminations, when he claps eyes on his present. The two of them forging a lifelong bond over pulled Christmas crackers, bad jokes and lopsided Charades with only three players. My fervent Christmas wish, was that in time, step-father would legally adopt step-son as his own. 

I groggily figured I wasn’t the one in the house most excited by the dawning of Christmas Day itself. Seeing as I hit only cold air on the mattress next to me. I could only speculate whether Charles had beaten Sam to the punch and could at least have prevented Sam tearing into his gifts before I was present to witness his joy. But when I went into the kitchen, there was only Charles there frying up something delicious for breakfast. What a man! But where was my little man?

Eventually he emerged and the presumed skein of sloth was immediately moulted from him as he charged past the kitchen doorway towards the living room and the tree. “Hold on a moment Sonny Jim! Come and say hello to your parents and have some breakfast first”.  My heart went ‘ping’ at hearing the word ‘parents’, but was soon sent into spasm as Charles surged forth out of the kitchen and returned dragging Sam by the scruff of his neck. 

“Breakfast first, as a family, then you can open your presents” he restated firmly. I was torn as assuredly as any wrapped gift would be imminently. Perfect sentiment presented in a gauntleted fist. Sam slumped down on his chair at the table. Charles laid an aqua blue cereal bowl down in front of him, with no percussive slam betraying any anger. “I’m not hungry” bleated Sam tonelessly. “No, you just want to go and attack your presents. But I’ve said we’re going to sit together and eat, like a civilised family. Here, Wheatabix, your favourite”. (Which you’re led to believe is his favourite, from the crib sheet I provided you, not your own explorations of his psyche). A cascade of milk, from such a height that some of the drops bounce off the wheat bricks, like a science experiment on heated atoms. “I’m not hungry”. Arms folded, petulant. Been here before, see how it goes this time with different adult geometry. Charles takes his seat, thankfully not diametrically opposite Sam. That alignment falls to me as Sam draws a bead pleading silently. No, not pleading, lasering insistently.

Taking a leaf out of his playbook, I don’t meet his gaze. I hear the vigorous relish with which Charles is demolishing his food. Modelling behaviour. Wordlessly hectoring his stepson. Oblivious to the inevitable stillbirth of a soundless strategy to bring someone out of their own muteness. My problem is I’ve got both parties in this fight. I mean Sam has always tended towards this cussed resistance, but with me he’s never had to maintain it for terribly long before I cave. Charles I suspect is made of sterner stuff. Stags butting antlers. A more fitting contender. He’s not surely going to keep this up all morning is he? Not with the pull of his presents under the tree. Famous last words. Mouthed dumbly inside my head of course… 

I stare forlornly at Sam's bowl. Like a shipwreck now, since the wheat block is so saturated that grains break off into the milky main and float away. Leaving a diminished wheaten life raft that carries us all away, not to safety, rather to be dashed on the rocks of unblended family. Charles has finished, but won’t indulge Sam’s power play as he rises from the table, his empty bowl emphatically swept up in hand. Score one to Sam, Charles broke first, even if it is within the permissible bounds of mannered tables. Charles leans over into him, “you’re not leaving this table until you’ve drained your bowl”. He pirouettes away to go wash up. Pretty poor show I think, not to show solidarity with me stuck in place, slowing my mastication up to inch towards Sam’s stasis. It strikes me that Sam is wearing his orange t-shirt, like a Guantanamo prisoner, or someone condemned to death row. Apposite for the siege situation we have here. But it must also hint that he was not so excited by the prospect of present unwrapping, that he didn’t first make time to dress. Has he planned for this showdown? This trial of strength? This prison break?

A further marker of ceramic chronometry. The wheat has now broken up entirely. All hands lost to the brine, but Sam’s countenance is set firm and sheds no salty tears. Oh for a plug in the bottom of his bowl, so that the bilge could leak away to bring about the desired outcome with no loss of face to either male of the house. Oh for a plug in the planet to pull out and have us all slip painlessly away and for the earth to empty of its lethal tidal flow. I have to break this impasse. I too rise from the table, without chancing to catch Sam’s eye. I make my way to the living room, where all our Christmas lives hung in the balance. As assuredly nailed to the mantlepiece with the stockings, foreshadowing the Saviour’s next anniversary in the calendar, his crucifixion. 

I remonstrate with Charles about his demonstration of authority. Our hushed tones climb the scale in irritation. "Do you honestly expect to keep this up and keep him from his presents, from his Christmas?” “I don’t know, he’s your son. Do you expect him to keep it up?” “But what about the turkey? What about all this effort I’ve put in to making us a special lunch? And for what? At best all you’ll achieve is a Pyrrhic victory”. “You’ve used one syllable too many there. A prick victory, for your little prick of a son”.

I stormed out the parlour of the heated parley and marched back into the kitchen. I was about to seize up Sam’s bowl, when I saw that the top layer of milk had curdled. An atomic clock that had marked in just the course of half a morning, the curdling of all love. 

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Shipbilging - Flash Fiction

The shattered jeroboam’s frothy white squirt against the hull’s continental steel. A dwarfed, ignominious marker of diminished imperial puissance. An overdue premature ejaculation, since there aren’t yet engines fitted into the hulking hollow husk. The remaining shard of the cable-hung bottle, bobbing against the receding keel, as if fumbling to pinion the hasp of a broach.

The metallic monolith slithers down wooden logs into the river. Honouring the glacial pace of retooling, unionised fidelity to the ribs of the antediluvian steel womb it was pressed from. Larger scale male encomium to the frugality of the household mangle. Jagged, homespun industrial Victoriana, in an incipient age of laser torches and robot arms. 

As the vessel breasts the water, kissed not by the Asti-Spume-Mante, rather buffed with the stowaway blood of journeymen workers. Siemens’ seamen involuntarily press-ganged between the metal rollers. Riveters’ skin inadvertently welded into the plates of the ship. Caulked snug to seal seaworthiness with worthless toiling lives. Enfolded like ectopic embryos, immured behind birthing canal alloys. The figurehead prow of old, moving aft. Skeletons and calcified limbs disinterred when the ship is broken down for scrap years hence. Blood dried the same colour as rust. 

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow - Flash Fiction

I was of an age to remember horse-drawn transport. Carts in the countryside, buses and carriages in the towns. The well-off villager had two-horse power locomotion. Now it’s god knows how many horse power engines beneath the hood. Nought to sixty in increasingly diminishing intervals. The country lanes are too treacherously maintained, the city roads too clogged with congestion, to ever justify the top speeds possessed by modern cars. Souped up overkill threatening to turn anyone into roadkill.

All my old records play at 78RPM. I say play, but of course these days I have no gramophone that can accommodate their revolving tempo. The speeds got slower and slower, 45RPM singles, three minute ditties for milk bar jukeboxes. 33RPM albums, which got shorter and shorter in terms of duration as the inside grooves took up more and more of the ever thinner vinyl. Now it’s all digital and there are no  moving parts. Vaporous music in the void. I could flog my collection, put them on E-Bay. Sell them to some other duffer with no means of amplifying their breakneck revolutions. Like two museums, one loaning their collection to another. 

Though the camera obscura and daguerrotypes might have predated my existence, I do recollect indoor studio family portraits as a child, when we were required to stand as still as statues for the long exposure time to capture us. Light not moving at light speed apparently, though of course the lag was in the chemicals catching and fixing it to the film. Well now we have digital cameras operating at near light speed as the image is virtually instantaneously loaded up to the Cloud. And as Einstein showed us, approaching light speed and you lose dimensionality. Front, back and side begin to merge together into a singular plane. Which is apposite as I cease to have much in the dimension of time front and sideways of me; all is to my rear. I face only the event horizon of the black hole that is death. Once I cross it, I will cease to move, yet there will still flicker motion in the memories of those I leave behind me, until that dips to stasis in time as they move on and uneventfully cross their own event horizons. 

I’m no longer able to dance the slow-quick-quick of the foxtrot. My legs don’t have the elasticity of step they were once imbued with. They have swollen up with disuse, water retention. But they are also loathe to palpate the taccycardic ticker in case it bursts. The fitted pacemaker parcels out a regular ration of beats for me, because the old greedy muscle would otherwise splurge on them all at once and infarct like a supernova. The doctors won’t tell me how many heartbeats I have left. Yet my offspring worry themselves over my sedentary snail’s lifestyle and have obtained for me a wrists-borne Fit-Bit. To get me a bit more fit, but not so much as to detonate my heart. It counts my daily steps for me, swapping permutations with the pacemaker. I am worried if I go near a cellphone tower, I will either pick up Radio Unfree Europe, or it will triangulate with my two inner chronometers to fatally accelerate me. What does any of it matter anyway? I don't have my wife to dance the foxtrot with, since her speed settings had been even more accelerated than my own.  

Ageing’s relativistic distortion of time. As our bodies move slower through life, our being hurtles swifter towards death. 

Sunday, 11 February 2018

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Will Self? - Booktube video

So Will Self, novelist, cultural critic and talking head about town. Just how does one try to get to grips with his opaqueness? Here are my thoughts, focussing on his latest novel, the last in a trilogy, "Phone".

Friday, 9 February 2018

Comma As Muck - Editorial Battle Royals over the Comma

Before the social media age, I didn't know what an "Oxford Comma" was. But thanks to the wonder of people with too much time on their hands on Twitter, I know realise I have not only always rejected the O.C., but I will fight anyone who says I have to use a comma before the word 'and' in any circumstance, as part of a list or not. I vaguely remember being told at school that you don't put commas before 'and', which is odd, because I was probably that first generation of pupils who were given no grammar training at all as it had been dispensed with as we were to learn our mother tongue more organically. What grammar I picked up was through having to learn French and Latin in secondary school.

As a writer, I've never really thought much about grammar. I used to write stage plays and there you have to think very hard about commas, colons and ellipses for the actors who have to speak your dialogue. Since moving to prose, I've mainly written flash fiction, where with just 1000 words to play with in a story, grammar doesn't weigh too heavily on the whole.

But (another vague rule was never start a sentence with 'but') as I received my novel's proof copy edit back from my publisher last week, all of a sudden I've had to think very, very hard about grammar and in particular the humble comma. In the edit, there were no more than ten words changed, deleted or added throughout the whole book. there were maybe about another 5 tense change edits. Some style guide edits around brackets and whether the full stop went inside or outside and also if you ended a bracket with a question mark, do you still need a full stop outside the bracket? And the rest of the edits - commas deleted and commas inserted. I was asked for my comments on the proposed edits...

Dave Eggers has written a novel entirely in dialogue, but he doesn't employ speech marks. Instead each new speaker starts with a dash.

Will Self has written a book without paragraphs (and even changes narrator mid sentence and without warning).

Mathias Enard has written a book without a single full stop, that's right, the whole 500+ pages is one sentence...

These are not random acts or examples of sloppy grammar. They have made these decisions consciously for stylistic reasons. And in reviewing my proof, I realised that though probably born from an organic sense, the vast majority of my use of commas was its own stylistic decision.

The novel is quite conversational in style. Three different narrative voices to be precise. Each differentiated from the other. So a uniform style guide across the board is not going to work. They use pauses for dramatic effect, for emphasis. A comma is always going to work better for this than a semi-colon or colon, even if they're rattling off a list. (To my mind, a semi-colon is always suggestive of a magician about to reveal some great trick, which may not always be appropriate in a sentence, maybe it's less of an outstanding revelation and more a natural corollary). A comma can indicate where the emphasis of a sentence should fall, important if a sentence is building up to some climactic reveal or suggestion such as at the end of an argument, or outrageous statement. A comma can also lend temporality to certain verbs and actions, such as "re-emergence", "festering", or here in the case of "trailing", conveying the sense of a repeated happening, which over time has yielded a certain effect or understanding.

Been trailing here long enough now to put the names to the faces, the faces to the aspects of the mothers 

Which brings me to a reason to delete commas. Phrases like "of course", "you see", "only", "since", "well" and the like, usually sustain a comma. But when the speaker (in the cases of my three narrative voices, an internal voice) is in full-flow, is being declamatory, commas in these cases only slow the flow. When one of the voices uses the phrase "of course", she may not be supposing and weighing up the alternatives, she is using it for emphasis as if there are no other possibilities. Confident, assertive, a comma absolutely works against this. One of the characters has written her words in a diary, so she has already largely processed them between the event she is reporting and coming to set them down on paper. She is not ruminating, she is leaving herself a fully-realised story, with morals and cautions to avoid mistakes in the future. Another voice exists only online, where grammar is rarely strictly formal. The third voice, (non-human), is putting forth an argument in rhetorical fashion, as if we the human race were slow kids at school who just have to listen and take our medicine as she delivers it. Pace and tone fundamentally determine the need for pauses or run-on sentences. Sometimes the speaker offers a seeming space for the listener to consider what has just been said; other times no such opportunity is permitted, because to the speaker's mind it is self-evident. The tension for the reader is whether these narrators are trustworthy and their words reliable; that for all their assertive flow, are there perceptible cracks in their confidence which might undermine the veracity of what they say? Commas can't do all the work behind such tension, but they are indispensable to it. A comma can hint at insincerity as much as bluster.

Although we read silently, we still do hear it at some level inside our heads. I always have a draft explicitly where I read aloud to try and see how reading it might be for the reader. Sometimes you have to help the reader, to give them pauses to catch their breath, or cogitate on something you suspect is going to reverberate in their mind. Here the humble comma is most helpful in breaking up the run of a sentence and providing the reader a chance to get to the end of it. Such commas must be careful not to work against the logic used in the previous paragraphs, but they are still important for helping the reader along. I use the phrase "the everyday arpeggio of parenting", which because of its plosive sounds can leave the reader a little breathless, so I use a comma to let the reader catch their breath before completing the sentence "inevitably thrums and frets my stretched nerve ends".

So there you have it. No more than 15 notes on words, but page after page about commas needing to be instated or inserted ones needing to be removed. I really came to see my own novel in a whole new light, that of the microcosmic at the level of the sentence. No doubt in future I shall still write with an innate and organic sense of grammar, but in the revisions and edits, I shall have to think about every comma in this way once again.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Nebenstimme - Flash Fiction

At night he composed his musical scores amid the discomposed and the decomposing. That mound of bodies heaped in the camp’s “Pathology Department”. Where the deceased were harvested for chimerical medical trials, their flesh sown for decorative ornaments to give as gifts to Nazi Frauen. Even the Germans didn’t dare enter this human tannery past sunset. For fear of ghosts. Though he took up residence there, precisely because all was unutterably still for him to pen his movements. For he couldn't concentrate in this concentration camp. To hear the music in his head, he needed to be away from the diminuendo outside. Of groans, gurgling stomachs consuming their hosts and relentless recitations of the mourners’ Kaddish. The only ghosts to be had, were the shuffling wraiths of the still living skeletons. 

Emerging from the charnel room with the dawn, he would clutch a new tune inscribed on the toilet sheets he’d solemnised from the dysentery sufferers. Dodging the sleepy sentries, he slipped his latest opus to the conductor of the camp orchestra during the shambling gathering for roll call and any unused candle tallow. Their neighbours in the file rounded on them both. 

- In this place music is an affront. Your orchestra an abomination - My friend, music lifts the spirit. It offers hope there is still beauty and refinement in the world - Modest ain't he? You’re no better than parasites. Like our Rabbis, you were only ever provided any means through the generosity of patrons, people who toiled for their money and who you cozened funds from, in the myth it would redeem their souls - Ah, good to see the art versus business dichotomy still rages on in a place where neither hold much in the way of currency - So you admit it? Besides, how can your music have anything to do with refinement, when you lock yourself up in that heinous room of all rooms to write your notes? It can only but be permeated with the benighted spirits of the departed there. Your dead muses. I bet they light your way at night, it’s their fat you use for those candles isn’t it? - No sir, absolutely not. How could something so profane be associated with the making of noble art? - You are still nothing but a ghoul - No sir, a golem. To uplift our hearts in order to conduct us into survival - To conduct us into the afterlife more like. Die Totentänze. Do you expect us to dance a muzurka as we work in the quarries? Or perhaps demand that we waltz on into the ovens to your accompaniment? A little chamber music as tribute to our three-to-a-bunk barracks? Or maybe you have written a march for our victorious host to parade triumphantly out of this camp as we overthrow our captors? - Those with art and beauty in their hearts will stand more chance of enduring through the greatest hardship than those without - Oh really, will your uplifted soul float above the gas in the chambers and preserve you pure air to breathe? - No, but it will help preserve pure air for those that come after us to breathe. To know that from such an abyss, the human spirit could still soar.